Kassala, Sudan: Sowing the Seeds of Self-Sufficiency
Fatima Mohamed is counting her chickens, and not just because they’ve already hatched. She’s counting on them to help her make the titanic leap from ward of the world to self-sufficient farmer.
Sometime this month, Fatima will get enough fully grown chickens to fill a wire mesh coop on the spit of land she has carved out at the Fatu camp for the displaced. The settlement sits just outside this sand-blown Sudanese city near the country’s northeastern border with Eritrea.
She fled her hometown of Dimen in 1998 when anti-government rebels allied with the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, which hold large portions of southern Sudan, launched an offensive against the government.
“We heard bullets everywhere, so we fled and left everything behind,” she said. “We lost our home, our land, our animals.”
After six years of getting relief, Fatima is among several hundred individuals and families to whom the International Rescue Committee is giving the tools to prosper independently.
The donations are not large; the poultry program is budgeted for $3,800, enough to buy chickens for just 30 families. Yet they make a dramatic difference, turning displaced war victims into self-sufficient members of a society.
“I’m very happy. I get a business to earn money,” said the 20-year-old single woman, clad in scarlet robes that blazed like fire in the Nubian Desert’s midday sun, as she strolled around a freshly delivered wire cage that will be the cornerstone of her poultry business.
The horrible event that drove Fatima, her parents and her siblings to this parched, treeless settlement is but one of the conflicts that have been overshadowed by the epic calamity roughly 800 miles west, in the region of Darfur. There, about 1.5 million people have been displaced and 50,000 killed since the outbreak of civil war in 2003
The Kassala region exploded in 1998, when anti-government rebels launched an assault from Eriteria and captured many rural areas around Kassala. More people were uprooted when the government retook that territory in 2001.
Kassala is for now stable, yet fragile and tense. It could blow up as unexpectedly as Darfur, because the predominately Beja people from this region—like the Fur people from Darfur—were not party to a U.S.-brokered peace accord aimed at mending the biggest rift: the war for control of southern Sudan.
Yet Kassala also represents a template for what Darfur could become if it settles down: a multitude of displaced people who are getting weaned off relief and taught to build grass-roots economic and advocacy organizations that are the seeds of a civil society.
The International Rescue Committee provides water and sanitation services—critical to the health of displaced populations—to six camps just south of Kassala and another four to the north. Kassala itself is a dusty town surrounded by magnificent mountains of smooth, solid rock that soar almost straight from the ground, looking like something akin to rough-hewn skyscrapers.
The agency also provides seeds and tools as part of what will be a broad agriculture program, if enough donations can be secured. The first harvest of sorghum and corn under this program went poorly because of a severe drought that delayed the rainy season. As a result, many of the sorghum plants never grew seeds, which are a dietary staple and the most lucrative part of the plant.
Many sorghum fields are now being harvested solely for animal fodder, which represents roughly a 75 percent drop in farmers’ earning potential, said Mohammed Nour Abdul, an IRC agricultural extension officer.
The goals for next year include fixing the sun-damaged soil, distributing more seeds and finishing the current program to train cooperative extension officers who will form the nucleus of a formal, grass-roots farming association.
Like all of IRC’s programs, the programs here blend together for long-term benefits. Women get an equal chance at agricultural training and various other education programs. Fatima is but one example of a how donor contributions are bringing a semblance of gender equality to the region.
Amna Musa can’t read or write and doesn’t even know her age, so she jumped at the chance to be among the 40 men and 40 women who are getting basic primary school training. “I want to learn to write and read very much,” she says.
But 25-year-old Maha Mohammed—one of only two teachers for the six camps south of Kassala, whose population is about 35,000 people—said there aren’t enough books, pencils and other materials to accommodate the vast numbers of rural people who crave educations.
Yet just having the opportunity to educate at least a small number is quite satisfying, she said. She herself is a refugee, having fled the town of Laffa in 1998.
“I feel that by teaching literacy, I’m leading these women from darkness to light,” she said. “I feel like I’ve found myself.”